Weather's turning cold, time for a precautionary draught of Kev's Traditional Grumpy Old Cynicism.
Among the happy-clappy mantras trotted out so readily in the present policy context is this one: 'local solutions to local problems'. As with 'there is no money' and 'we're all in this together', all a politician has to do is regurgitate this and shake a few hands, and apparently-intelligent beings fold away like reeds before the prow.
I observe that a lot of poverty that can be witnessed today is experienced as a local problem, well it would be wouldn't it, to which people are not able to find a local solution. Cos there's this thing called the economy, and it doesn't simply operate at the local level.
Or you might not like to think about poverty, so let's take transport. Major roads affect traffic flows indirectly causing damage in local areas, which sometimes local people are powerless to do much about. There may be a regional solution, but often not a local one. And so on.
It's not a new observation, even on this blog. Five years ago I posted some thoughts on neighbourhood governance after a meeting at which the point was made that residents in a given locality have to be able to intervene at levels other than their own. And I noted that people were uncomfortable with the requirement to have neighbourhood boundaries defined in order to ensure representation and therefore accountability.
Well well, plus ca change. The recent Local growth white paper includes the idea for 'neighbourhood plans' - around boundaries that the government doesn't want to have the responsibility for deciding. Here at para 3.9 is the stated intention of
giving every neighbourhood the chance to shape its own development through the creation of neighbourhood plans, which will give local communities greater flexibility and the freedom to bring forward more development than set out in the local authority plan.
'The freedom to bring forward more development'? Who are these people comprising 'neighbourhoods' who are so determined to surround themselves with more development? Could there be a connection with this point made by Domenic Donatantonio on the Planning blog? -
in a bid to scythe through red tape, the government has said it will provide incentives to ensure that local communities benefit from development, raising the dangerous spectre of cash payments to buy off frustrated neighbours.
For planners, the big number from the big society will come with the onset of neighbourhood plans. The final bill for these as yet unproven tools depends on the size and shape of each authority.
However, the cost of producing each neighbourhood plan is likely to be at least £30,000, while some commentators put it at closer to £80,000. Another estimate puts the number of rural and urban neighbourhoods affected by the localism bill at 18,000.
Even on the most conservative estimates, this suggests £540 million will be needed to secure national coverage. At a stroke, planning could be transformed from an income stream into a big spending service.
If such figures are plucked out of the air, this is inevitable. The government has failed to offer any kind of cost-benefit analysis of its proposals. However worthy the principles and visions of a particular policy, such a lacuna in an age of austerity is staggering. It is just the type of oversight that leads to unintended and damaging consequences.
I submit that there's been some naive policy thinking which will lead to tears. It's not helped by thinking of 'communities' as some kind of 'here's-one-I-prepared-earlier' consensus, nor by pretending that local problems are necessarily going to have local solutions.
To me, it makes sense to invest in community development that is geared to helping people work towards consensus in decision-making contexts in the respected and respectful company of professionals; and also to equalise genuine participation, co-design and co-delivery through the area and regional forums that will remain necessary in order for people to have a say in decisions on a wider geographical scale than the neighbourhood.